A Few Notes on the History of Optical Illusion and Light in Art
Optical illusion and light have often been considered to be at the foundation of art. Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History (77 AD) on the origin of painting, chronicling that the first painting was a contour line drawn by a Corinthian maid around her lover’s shadow, so she could preserve his image as a memento while he was away. In the same book, Pliny writes about the painting contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasios, two famous masters from Ancient Greece who tried to trick each other with their super realistic paintings. To create such realistic depictions of a bouquet of flowers or a curtain covering a window, one had to resort to special techniques of displaying light and its effects.
From classical antiquity to our present day, light has been used as a synonym of truth. Plato used the sun as an analogy for it, as light bestows us with the ability to see and it makes things intelligible. Renaissance masters like Masaccio and Da Vinci, for whom light was still a symbol of verity, applied the technique of chiaroscuro to both illuminate objects and generate a sense of depth. Ever since, creating a spatial illusion on the flat surface of a canvas has been the credo of academic painting.
In the nineteenth century, artist like Goya, Turner and Van Gogh revolutionized our understanding of light and its place in painting. They transformed light’s historical use as that which illuminates the material, into a means that permits a more genuin realization of color. Color became a manifestation of something immaterial, spiritual almost. This purified concept of light has been the basis for many modern and contemporary art movements playing with light, such as ZERO and the Southern Californian Light and Space movement. Within the exhibition Mirrors / Mirages, we show a selection of artworks that deal with the immateriality of light as well as its illusory effects.